Tag Archives: nature

Let’s Go To The Woods!

Behind our house is a deep wooded cove running the length of our street and separating us from the rear neighbors by about four hundred feet. Our side of the cove is almost ravine steep, while the far side is gentler, so the wet weather stream that carved this cove is nearer our street than it is to the street behind us. Our property line, while near the horizontal midpoint, is well up the opposite slope.

We have almost no back yard; the woods of our cove come nearly to the back of the house. From our rear windows we watch deer, squirrel, chipmunk. We hear, then see, the pileated woodpecker flashing tree to tree. We hear owls. We watch the progress of the seasons, noting the specific day on which the spring leafing-out suddenly hides the houses behind us. We watch the stream braiding across the flat cove bottom during and after a heavy rain.

From my second story study window, I can see the forest floor littered with downed trunks. We have lived here a quarter of a century, and most of the deadfall still visible has fallen during our tenure. I remember those trunks as standing timber, and they tell much of the history of our association with these woods. A few are oaks, killed by lightening. Most are pines, or the victims of pines.

When we moved here, pines represented a small but noticeable portion of the canopy. Most have fallen, their roots simply unable to keep them aloft. We had an arborist on site shortly after one fell and he affirmed that the tree had been healthy. I don’t know if it is their natural life cycle to get tall and fall, or if perhaps the maturing hardwoods around them change their roots’ ability to grip the soil. For what ever reason, one after another of our stately and seemingly healthy pines has fallen. We had the few that remained preemptively cut down to control the hazard.

In one notable case, a falling pine lodged in a white oak. It was a wet season and, before we could have the pine removed, it had pushed the oak into a large tulip poplar, which itself then leaned farther. Ultimately, that pine pushed down six sizable hardwoods in a line stretching two thirds of a football field from its base and spanning the bottom of the cove.

The back of a neighbor’s lot was once mostly pines, until pine bark beetles killed them all. On one not-notably-windy day, Nancy heard crash after crash from that part of the woods. Later investigation showed that the dead pine trunks had nearly all fallen or been snapped off high up, like some cultic mass suicide. The forest floor was littered with newly downed trunks. Most frightening were the trunk sections that had done a 180 or even a 360 in their descent, diving stunts that left fifteen foot sections planted upright in the soft ground.

Those woods have always been a playground for us. That first year, we built a “fort” at the bottom of the cove for my two boys to use—a two-story affair topped with a tarp in pup tent configuration. Straddling the stream bed, its first floor was two feet above the ground level, reached via a drawbridge from the steep side of the cove. Occasionally my sons would sleep out in the fort. I remember one night all four of us were on its upper deck, watching a deer just below us coming to the stream for a drink.

When we moved in, there was just one path down into the woods from our yard. It went straight down the slope. That was convenient for dragging the lumber for the fort down the hill, but misery for coming back up, not to mention the erosion potential. So we soon began laying out alternative routes using switchbacks. Over the years, various tree falls have necessitated slight alterations, but our original paths are still largely intact.

We use these paths almost daily. Mona and I take long walks on neighborhood streets more days than not, probably logging 400-500 miles a year. But even after a three mile morning walk, she will typically get restless in the afternoon. “Let’s go to the woods!” I’ll say, and she’s alive with anticipation. She will take off down a path, scaring up squirrels, chipmunks, occasional deer. In the woods, she can be free of her leash, roaming freely. She never strays, always staying within eyesight.

Pumpkin, our first dog, I also associate with these woods. She was a skinny stray, abandoned and hungry, watching us build the fort. She was pumpkin-colored, and came to us at harvest time. After we’d adopted her and filled out her ribcage, we had to keep her on a leash in the woods. She was a runner, liked to come home an hour later after a good roll in deer scat.

Twenty-five years of these woods. One dog’s lifetime, and more than half of her replacement’s likely lifespan.

Mona and I used to walk some of the downed tree trunks, ’til the good ones rotted too much for safe footing. I slipped off one of the huge rootballs once. Wet weather. It crumbled underfoot and I ended up flat on my back in the watery hole from whence the rootball had come, briefly stunned, wet and cold. Now I carry my cell phone, and think of my age before embarking on acrobatics.

Nancy, too, uses these paths often. With camera in hand, or just with Mona. We wage a one-family war on poison ivy, English ivy, vinca minor, privet. We gage soil moisture by where the dry stream bed becomes wet, enjoying watching water boil up through small underground passages. We scratch through the gravel beds newly deposited after a major storm.

Over a quarter-century, with near-daily familiarity, you notice changes. Falling trees open up the canopy and then it closes again. The understory changes. Small plots of various ferns and trillium wax and wane with the changes overhead. The past several years have seen our Mayapple area expand ten-fold. Our one patch of bluet shrank to nothing as the canopy closed. It will be interesting to see if it re-emerges this spring; we had to have a large, lightning-damaged white oak felled, re-opening the old bluet site to the sky.

I called the woods our playground. Exclusively ours, it seems. Once in the woods, several acres of forest are open to our enjoyment. None of the neighbors seem to know they exist. We’ve never encountered another person in this playground. In twenty-five years, I’ve heard children’s voices down there only a handful of times, with the exception of my own boys. Seen evidence of children’s play even less, except for paintball hulls, mostly shot from the “safety” of a back deck. Even our youngest had little interest in playing there. This is more than surprising to us. Both Nancy and I grew up spending many happy hours in our own wooded playgrounds. The alleged “nature deficit” of today’s children seems real in my neighborhood.

Time and weather took their toll on our fort, and no one was using it anymore, so we removed it. The corner poles and some of the better flooring got repurposed; the rotted stuff hauled to the landfill. Today, the only evidence of the old fort is a small bench fashioned from part of the drawbridge substructure. I think we have been good stewards of our small piece of nature. We’ve intended to be. We will probably walk those paths until our bodies give out, and then watch from our windows.

Snow Day Redux

It’s a snowy day, the first of the season. I was up early, doing my morning pages and watching the snow and wondering if I’d venture out for my usual Wednesday morning men’s group session. And then I remembered another snowy day, almost 18 years ago. I dug out what I’d written that day. So much changes over two decades, but then again, not much.

Snow Day

At 5 am, the rain is laced with sleet.  On a normal day, I treasure the stillness and solitude of 5 am.  I’ve been known to choke the pendulum on the Regulator clock into silence and pull the plug on our tabletop fountain, their tick, tock, drip, and splash too garish in the early morning calm; I’ve strained to hear tranquil rain above the hum of refrigerator in the next room and jetliner six miles up.  Today, with the weather on the fence, curiosity outweighs my need for solitude, and I admit muted TV weather watchers into my journaling and prayer time.  I watch the growing list of school closings and let Doppler images compete with Nehemiah, fasting in captivity, mourning his beloved Jerusalem.  I contemplate how I will spend the day, if the weather breaks my way.

By 6:30, rain and sleet give way to snow, and white accumulates on lawn and street.  Local schools are closed, and I intercept my teenage son on his way to the shower.  I go back to bed.  Snow is a gift, not least for the chance of extra sleep.

At 8, I wake again.  The world is white—every trunk and branch and twig.  My youngest is awake.  He turns four today and already has two unplanned presents: a snow day, and a big brother to share it with.  If he were older and self-entertaining, my love and I might stay in bed till noon.  I fantasize, but not for long.

How will I spend this snow day?  I could brave the slippery streets and clump around the office in hiking boots and jeans and bulky sweater, one of the male majority who consider ourselves essential to the economy and our driving skills well above average.  I could stay home and chafe at the inconvenience, trapped in childcare and domesticity.  I’ve done both.

Or I can accept this day as a gift, six-pointed grace.  I call the office and say I’m staying home.  “Call if you need me.”  They won’t, and I won’t mind.

In all honesty, I should confess that I’m underemployed right now and would have had to take a day or so off anyway.  But I’d stay home even if it were a busy week.

The snow took out a pine tree, laid it neatly on the path that switchbacks down to the kids’ fort.  Most of the pines in my oak woods lean and droop on a good day, and this giant’s snow heavy top got the better of its roots.  An oak, itself an affront to gravity leaning 40 degrees off plumb, snagged the top 15 feet off the pine on its way down.  That lethal widowmaker hangs 30 feet in the air, its 8” diameter butt-end a jagged warning flag of yellow against black bark, green needles, and gray sky.  Come spring, we’ll have to build a new stretch of trail through the poison ivy, briars, and deadfall.  Come spring, we’ll have muddy shoes and pants to clean as the four-year-old climbs the newly formed mountain of roots and explores the crater they once occupied.

The snow makes disappointing sledding.  We tromp through the woods to explore the downed tree, bombarded by soggy tufts of slush from the canopy.  Wet cold hands soon bring us inside.  We make cake and cookies for the birthday celebration.  I do a workout, some writing, some housework, enjoying the slow pace of a snow day.

I’ve had a lot of snow days in the past two years, though few with real snow.  Leave without pay.  Not enough work.  Days when I stayed home and played with my son or took him to the zoo.  Days when I painted the house.  Days when I wrote.  A long Gulf Coast vacation.

Those days are joy; I relish the re-creating freedom and opportunity.  Loss of income is a serious downside, to be sure.  But the nights of waking in dry-mouthed, heart-pounding fear of unemployment have been rare.  I more often feel on the threshold of something exciting.

Chronologically, I’m on the threshold of Modern Maturity, which will be arriving in my mailbox any day now.  But my snow days are not about withdrawal and winding down.  They are days of discovery—that I have creative gifts, healing gifts, spiritual gifts to be nurtured and used.

In The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis says of his fellow bus travelers, “They were all fixed faces, full not of possibilities, but of impossibilities.”  That is the face I see in the mirror that scares and haunts me.  Gaunt, tight, sunken cheeked, steeled against the world, seeing only today and an endless string of todays.  

More than most, I’ve resisted change and run from risk.  Once I wore a mustache for 21 years; having grown it to spite my father, I forgot what I looked like underneath and couldn’t make the leap to rediscover myself or him.  I count my life as two decades of childhood, two of stagnation, and one of belated climbing out of ruts.  Snow days are for climbing out of ruts.

And what of my next decade?  Where will it take me?  Patching up my dis-integrated life is a priority.  I am tired of this piecemeal life in which the way I earn a living interferes with the way I find fulfillment.  With Frost, “My goal in living is to unite my avocation and my vocation…”  To write, to serve and heal hurt children, to love, to worship and pray—that is the description of my dream vocation.  Snow days are experiments and practice for my next career, whose outlines I barely discern and whose details I have not yet imagined.

The next day, streets are clear, schools open, and life back to routine.  In separate casual conversations, two people I barely know ask if I made it in to work the day before.  The first seems shocked and dismayed when I say I could have, but didn’t; with the precision of a practiced commuter, she details for me her route, the road conditions, and just how many extra minutes her trip had taken.  The other, like me, had voluntarily stayed home and enjoyed every minute.  Her face is all smile as she recounts telling her husband she might just quit work and stay home for good.  Yeah!

The End of Blacksnake

Blacksnake is dead. I had written earlier about the snake that briefly inhabited our attic and heating duct runs last summer, and his/her determination to be near, if not in, our house this year. Yesterday I found his mortal remains in our garden shed, entangled in a bundle of bird netting we’d had on a shelf.

I am a middle-of-the-roader when it comes to snakes. Not a hoe-wielding chopper of anything long and legless; but also not inclined to catch and play with them. Moderately creeped-out, that’s me. Grateful for their rodent-control efforts, I’d rather not spend time in close proximity. But on the snake scale, this blacksnake was much higher in my affections that the copperhead I found on our street a few years ago, a victim not of any hoe, but of its unfortunate fondness for warm pavement. I viewed blacksnake as my protector from rodents and copperheads, and will miss him or her.

The end must have been violent, to judge from the things knocked off the shelf and the twisted state of the bird netting. I can only hope it was relatively quick, strangulation not starvation. Predator did not succumb to another predator, but to a piece of human detritus. A sad and ignoble end.

Return to Mayberry

We just returned from a trip to visit my mother. That in itself is not unusual—she lives just a few hours away, and we have settled into a pattern of frequent but short visits. This trip, however, we decided to add an extra day and do some sightseeing in the North Carolina mountains, with Linville Falls as our major destination.

I have some history in this area. As a scout leader in my 20s, I rappelled from cliffs along the edge of the Linville Gorge Wilderness, and spent one memorable snowy night under one of those cliffs without food, shelter, sleeping bag, or heavy clothing. I have visited the Falls and nearby areas as a tourist off and on since childhood. As a teen with a brand new driver’s license, I would sometimes explore the unpaved and un-numbered back roads nearby.

Lower falls from plunge pool, Linville Falls, NC
Lower falls from plunge pool, Linville Falls, NC

So it was fun to be back in the area and to show some of it to Nancy. Our decision as to which trail to take to view the Falls was simple: Avoid the yap dog pulling its owner along the easy trail. We took the “strenuous” route, all the way down to the plunge pool. Quite a thrill for Nancy and her two bionic hip joints. A year ago, she was nearly wheelchair-bound.

We saw a glorious sunset from the grounds of our B&B, had a memorable breakfast next morning, then drove to Blowing Rock.

Rhododendron in Bloom, St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Parish, Blowing Rock, NC
Rhododendron in Bloom, St. Mary of the Hills Episcopal Parish, Blowing Rock, NC

Our great good fortune was to arrive when the rhododendron blooms were at their most glorious. Gardens throughout the village were exquisite, especially those at the Episcopal church and the city park. We took in the vistas from The Blowing Rock itself, then drove on to my mother’s, passing two commercial structures I had helped build during my teen summers as a construction laborer.

John's River Valley from The Blowing Rock, Blowing Rock, NC
John’s River Valley from The Blowing Rock, Blowing Rock, NC

If our short mountain sojourn was a homecoming of sorts, the visit with Mother was also a homecoming of a different kind. It is common to see relatives or her friends on these visits. But I have lived elsewhere for half a century and my connection with my hometown is slight. On this trip, however, the small-town-ness of my hometown was everywhere. And I mean that in the most positive sense. Running into my former Sunday School teacher, seeing cards created for Mother by my former math teacher, shopping at the local hardware now under the helm of the founder’s great-granddaughter, taking a walk in the neighborhood over fields owned by people I have known since childhood— I felt connections everywhere.

The small town sense of everyone knowing everyone came home especially with a visit to a business with which my parents have dealt practically all my life. Despite their long-term relationship, I had never had occasion to know, meet, or talk with the proprietor until a year ago. That memorable phone call began, after I had introduced myself, with the exclamation, “Brent! I am so glad you are not dead!” It seems that someone else with my name had appeared in the local obituaries a few weeks earlier. She had recognized the name and also that the list of relatives did not match. On finally meeting her this trip, she pulled out her notes of our earlier conversation, including the fact that she and Nancy were both among the first adopters of Macintosh computers. And talked and talked. About people I knew and others I probably should have known. About business dealings with my parents going back four decades. It was a true Mayberry moment.

I wish I had more Mayberry moments. I, too, live in a small town. Oak Ridge is not a typical Southern rural small town, but a small town all the same, with a parochialism all its own. Were I more gregarious, I could have those Mayberry moments here. Those mountain communities I have breezed through all my life are each their own Mayberry. But I have never lingered. I suppose a Mayberry can develop anywhere we let it: a college dorm, a suburban cul-de-sac, a downtown loft. At any rate, I am glad for last week’s brief return to Mayberry.

 

Blacksnake

Our blacksnake is back.

The Snake in the Attic
The Snake in the Attic

The story begins a year ago. While running some ethernet cable, I discovered a snakeskin above the drop ceiling of our laundry room. The laundry room is on the ground floor and the bedrooms are above, so the former occupant of that skin had been between floors in the living area of our house. Weeks later, Nancy noticed some distinctive deposits in the attic above our carport, identified by our local wildlife removal guy as snake scat. This attic is attached to the house, on the same level as our bedrooms, accessed at floor level from our master bath. A few days after that, she saw the snake in the flesh while rummaging through that attic. The wildlife guy searched and could not find the snake, found (and sealed) one and only one potential entry spot. He thought the snake was gone and that it had originally entered while trying to get to some baby wrens in a nest under our eaves. That nesting perch has since been removed. We spread some moth balls in the attic and above the drop ceiling to discourage the snake’s reentry and hoped that was the end of the story.

Blacksnake skin found above drop ceiling
Blacksnake skin found above drop ceiling

Apparently not. A few weeks ago, I saw a blacksnake moving toward our house from the woods behind us. I moved between it and the house, trying to scare it back into the woods, but it scooted past me within inches of my legs, disappearing under our deck. Why was it so determined to move toward the house? Nancy speculates that the dark and low space under the deck seemed safer than a retreat into the relatively open woods. Or that it was super hungry and the under-deck is a good hunting spot for chipmunks. I wonder if it has resided under the deck (or inside the house) since last year and was sprinting to the safety of “home.” Does a blacksnake even have a “home?”

What next? Do we buy more mothballs? Do we assume that if it comes into the house, it has good reason? E.G., mice? I guess I prefer a blacksnake to a mouse. And Nancy hates the smell of mothballs. So, with reservations, welcome back, Sneaky Snake. With apologies to Tom T. Hall, if you will keep us free of mice (and copperheads), you are welcome to all of our root beer.